John Green is a bestselling young-adult author whose most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, tells the funny and philosophical story of Hazel and Augustus, two teenagers with cancer who meet at a support group and fall helplessly in love. (Read our review here.) Green dodges the schlockiness suggested by his cancer-kid focus, and in fact uses his novel to critique the sentimentality and insincerity that often colors the way death and disease are handled, both in literature and in life. We spoke with Green over the phone as he crossed the Texas border into New Mexico, traveling by van to the next date on his mostly sold-out tour.
MERCURY: Your appearances on this tour are billed as "performances" rather than readings. Can you explain what that looks like?
JOHN GREEN: I read a little bit and talk not so much about the book but about what inspired it. My brother [Hank Green] is a musician. He plays some songs about my book and some songs about other books and science and all kinds of different things that are popular with the audience. And we then do a Q&A session and whoever is talking at the end—we have like 12 minutes to do Q&A and the shocking machine shocks whoever's talking at the end. Then Hank does another set and I answer questions about the book. Then there's a big finish, encores and stuff. We wanted it to be more like a performance than your typical book signing, which is always stressful and a little bit boring.
Has your approach to readings evolved over the course of your career?
I used to do readings and signings that were more traditional. Still not quite like the book signings one usually sees, but in the last year or two Hank and I have worked very hard to try to bring a concert-like feel and an emotional arc to these events, so that you leave feeling like you got a really positive, interesting, intellectually-engaged-but-still-super-fun experience.
Is it because you have such a young, cult-y fanbase that you try to provide that concert-like feel?
I think some of it is that my relationship with my readers is different from a lot of authors' relationships with their readers, but that's only some of it. The truth is, I'm not the only author on Twitter. I feel like it's really important that independent bookstores survive and thrive and I think that fun events where they can sell books can be a big part of it. And also it's just a lot more fun for us.
In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel idolizes an author, Peter Van Houten, only to meet him and find him a huge disappointment. Was that a cautionary tale to your own fanbase?
Well, in some ways, of course. You're always going to be disappointed by people you look up to. That's not exclusive to Hazel and Peter Van Houten. And I often do feel like I disappoint my readers in real life by not being able to have the relationship with them that they want, and also on some level that I want to have, but ya know—there's a lot of people there. It's not possible. I don't have Peter Van Houten's set of problems so I deal with that differently, I guess, but it's a weird relationship between an author and a reader in a way. It's unique, I think. With a book more so than any other art form the reader is really a participant in the creation of the story. The story doesn't become real unless it's read, and the life that it has in the mind of that reader is something that's different for each reader. It's not like I made something and they consumed it. We sort of made it together. And I try to be respectful of that, but then I think the weirdness of that relationship leads to people like Peter Van Houten and Salinger.
In the same vein, I was surprised to see your author's note reminding your readers that the book is a work of fiction. Why did you feel the need to emphasize that point?
Two reasons. First, a lot of my fans and the fans of our videos knew the young woman [Esther Earl] to whom the book is dedicated, and I did not want them to think that I was trying to appropriate her story. It was very important to me that they understand that Hazel is a fictional character and that Hazel is not Esther. That was part of it. Part of it was that we live in a world that is very personality driven and very obsessed with celebrities and the weird space between fiction and nonfiction that you find in reality TV and whatnot, and so inevitably when people read novels they try to connect it back to things in the author's life or things the author might be writing about from real life. I wanted to remind them that fiction has value as fiction, not just as a way of trying to understand some set of facts about the author or whatever else.
Yet Hazel made exactly that mistake when reading Peter Van Houten, of looking for autobiography.
Like every other reader. Ya know, I'm like that as a reader too. This is an old old problem in reading and literary criticism, separating the author from the work and to what extent the author should be separated from the work. And to what extent the two are separable. Hazel uses An Imperial Affliction [the novel authored by the fictional Van Houten] in precisely the same way that I ask that people not use The Fault in Our Stars, and I was conscious of that.
Why did you decide to throw in the story of Anne Frank alongside these fictional young women whose lives are also cut short?
Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus wants—she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable—but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people. And so I wanted him to go with a sort of expectation of her heroism and be sort of dashed.
Augustus finds some of that sense of nobility and heroism in videogames. To what extent does he approach those games that way as a function of his illness?
I think that those first-person shooter videogames have become our heroic epics. Where the Greeks had The Odyssey, we have Modern Warfare, for better or worse. Almost all of us think that to be a good life, a life must be either long or grandly heroic, and I think that's one of the things that's so appealing about those videogames. I mean, there's the pleasure of shooting people, but also there's the opportunity to have a kind of nobility in all of it. I think that is much more important to him because he's sick, because that's the life that he wanted. That's a sacrifice that he's desperate to find a way to make, the heroism that he's desperate to have, and that just isn't available to him, unfortunately.... Well, I don't know if it's unfortunate or not actually.
I found a lot to think about in the way videogames related to Augustus' character, but I couldn't figure out Hazel's fondness for America's Next Top Model in quite the same way. What was that about?
I wanted her to be like a lot of the intellectual kids I know, [who] don't differentiate between high culture and low culture the way we do as adults. It doesn't bother them to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and watch Pawn Stars. That's one thing I really find fascinating about teenagers—they can glean a lot of meaning from sort of low-culture activities. That was the main reason.
Is that a uniquely teenaged quality?
Some of us have been able to hold onto it. And more and more, there are attempts not just in writing but also in visual arts and other places to destroy the dichotomy between high culture and low culture. That's something that I've always been very interested in my work, because I write in a genre that doesn't get a lot of critical attention. But that doesn't keep me up at night or anything. And I don't think that it is just teenagers, I think it's a contemporary decision that a lot of different artists have made, and a lot of it is in response to the internet. I mean, if you look at your Tumblr feed there's Richard Serra and there's Paula Dean riding a jet ski with Jesus in space and they're right next to each other. So I think that's happening all over.
When I was researching for this interview, I kept falling into teenager Tumblr vortexes.
[Tumblr] particularly fascinates me because it's the place where young people don't think there are old people and so they act in a way that they would never act if they knew we were watching, which is interesting.
Do you find yourself looking at Tumblr or other social networking sites to keep your teen references current?
I don't. I think most of my critics would say I don't stay contemporary, in terms of my views or in terms of my novels. All of my pop culture references are usually from 1992. Kids in my books always like Neutral Milk Hotel. They never like what people are listening to now. Superficial pop-culture connections aren't ultimately that meaningful to readers and also they change so quickly, particularly now in the internet age where something is only cool for a few hours.
The internet wasn't so much an issue when you first started writing.
Yeah, I mean, my first book had a phone booth in it. The whole plot basically hinges on a phone booth. Amazon listed it as historical fiction. Maybe that's why.
How do you handle technology in your novels?
I try to write novels that are conscious of the fact that teenagers are using technology without being super specific about it or making it the center of the story. The internet is great and it's fun but I don't find it that narratively interesting.
But it does make a few interesting appearances, like when condolences are posted on Facebook wall after a character's death.
Before Facebook people were equally thoughtless about how to respond to death. So Facebook didn't invent that, but I think that it certainly got popular. I saw a post on Reddit a couple days ago where someone said, "I just wanna thank all y'all about all your generous words about my mom and it's really unfair that we lost her at such a young age but I really appreciate your condolences."
And one of his friend's responded, "You shouldn't say that. God had a plan for your mom. And it involved her dying when she died." And then the kid responded, "Fuck you." That's obviously a particularly egregious example but to me there's so many times when people try to say things that just don't hold up to scrutiny. And they say them to try to be comforting but easy comfort is never comforting. And dishonesty is never comforting.
I think because there is so much skimming on the internet and people don't often take the time to be as thoughtful as they ought to. It does lead to the sort of things you see on Gus' Facebook wall.
There's a line in the book about how you can decide to tell a sad story in a sad way, or in a funny way.
I've known a lot of sick people over the years. I've been with a lot of people living and dying and I've pretty consistently found that while people are alive, in every moment of life there's both, and there's some way to find humor. Humor and sadness coexist all the time in people's lives. In our saddest moments you can say funny things. You might not laugh at them but you can say them.
Do you think of the novel as instructive, or as a sort of morality tale?
I didn't set out to make a morality tale and I don't really know if The Fault in Our Stars is a moral [book]. That's not really for me to decide. That's for y'all to decide. It was important to me personally to think about why we make the choices we do, why we orient our lives the way that we do, and why we live while we live because so often the given reason is that we're doing it in order to make a mark or leave a legacy or last forever or change the world. The truth is that if you hold that up to scrutiny, a lot of times, if that's really why you're living, you're living for something that's not only impossible but also sort of destructive.
I remember having conversations about that with young people years and years ago when I worked at a children's hospital. I think those conversations just stuck with me and that's why I ended up wanting to write about it. I don't have a good answer for that question by the way.
But I do think that it's worth it. I do think it's a privilege to be an observer of the universe. But that doesn't really answer the question of how we should orient our lives. I don't know, if the book answers that then I'm happy, but I don't know that it does.
Well, it at least offers a perspective you don't see very often.
That was my hope. I did want to approach the question from a different perspective.
You definitely offered a different perspective than, like, the woman who wrote all those cancer books... Lurlene McDaniel?
Lurlene McDaniel. I read a bunch of Lurlene McDaniel. I mean I've been writing this book for a decade so I've had a lot of time to read. I read a bunch of Lurlene McDaniel when I was thinking about this novel. I'm fascinated by her work.
They were incredibly successful.
Yeah, they did great and they're so popular and what's particularly fascinating about it is: the same thing happened every time.
Yeah, you knew how they were gonna end.
There was a 100 percent outcome and I still liked it. I'm interested in why I liked that when I was a teenager. Those books for me provided a kind of comfort that didn't really hold up to intellectual scrutiny, but it was obviously a kind of comfort—I was desperate for some kind of encouragement and that was why I read them. I don't mean that as a dig on her. Even as an adult I found a lot to like in those books.
I don't want hurt poor Lurlene McDaniel. I don't know if she's living but I don't wanna bum her out.
Don't worry, I won't take your Lurlene McDaniel quotes out of context.